O'Neill forward thinking enriches Crowe's legacy

Aston Villa 0 Wigan Athletic 0
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The Independent Online

Before the game, the crowd had honoured the passing, in the same week, of two men who had written their own chapters in Aston Villa history, Vic Crowe and Johnny Dixon. At nearly any other club, the nostalgic applause might have been flavoured with another kind of grief, but not here. Instead their sepia images seemed to gaze down from the big screen with pride, and a hint of envy. They did not want to be missing this.

Had they won, Villa would have joined Manchester United on 50 points at the top of the table, albeit merely pending the late kick-off at Old Trafford. Some were duly tempted to attribute to stage fright their failure to beat Wigan – including, unbelievably, an odious minority of ingrates in the stand. But that would be a churlish commentary on a performance that only disclosed their one, lingering deficiency because Wigan somehow made it across the high-wire strung hazardously between pluck and luck.

In the absence of the suspended Ashley Young, Villa did lack the dancing feet that every heavyweight needs to make his punches count. True, Gareth Barry was in such sumptuous form that Fabio Capello, in the stands, must have lamented the imbalance in England's midfield requiring him to be deployed so conservatively. But you could certainly see, once again, why Martin O'Neill fought so hard when Liverpool sought to prise away Villa's cornerstone last summer.

As it was, with Wigan already at full stretch, O'Neill summoned John Carew, injured since November, to join Gabriel Agbonlahor and Emile Heskey, who had switched sides just eight days previously. While Heskey palpably reinforces O'Neill's hand, he hardly offers a fresh dimension, and it became rather like watching three bulls trying to get into one china shop.

In fairness, they might have scored half a dozen times between them in the second half alone. It is not as if the strategy is a reckless one. Villa remain unbeaten in the League since 9 November, and whatever else they might have lacked, it was not conviction. After 100 Premier League games here, O'Neill is tangibly enriching the legacy of men like Dixon and Crowe.

Steve Bruce, of course, is himself doing an exemplary job at Wigan, likewise creating a team greater than the sum of its parts. Sadly, it has somewhat disintegrated during the transfer window, and he faces a fresh set of challenges – not least a pair of North-east misfits, Mido and Charles N'Zogbia. He was comforted, then, to see his team defend with such spirit and cogency, and the new arrivals have a perfect template in Titus Bramble, who never lost his composure even during the most intense bombardment. There was a time, after all, when Bramble was not so much slipshod as slapstick.

"He was a big money signing when he was young," Bruce reflected. "Centre-halves get better as they get older, and I think he was just everybody's kicking block. He might be 6ft 4in and a big powerful lad, but sometimes he needed a bit of faith shown in him. I remember after 12 seconds of my first game, him falling over one, and I'm thinking: 'Uh-oh'. But I have to say for the last 15 months, particularly lately, he's looked a proper centre-half."

Candidly relieved to get away with a point, Bruce was adamant that Villa were not impostors among the top four. "Without question, the best Villa team I've seen," the Wigan manager said. "They've got good players from back to front. That was my tip at the start of the season – if anyone was going to do it, it would be Villa. They are big, strong, competitive. They look like a basketball team. They're there, and they will be there or thereabouts at the end."

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young, Davies, Knight, Cuellar; Milner, Barry, Petrov, Gardner (Carew, 61); Agbonlahor, Heskey. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Sidwell, Delfouneso, Salifou, Shorey, Osbourne.

Wigan Athletic (4-5-1) Kirkland; Figueroa, Bramble, Boyce, Melchiot; Koumas, Brown, Scharner (Watson, 77), Cattermole, De Ridder (Rodellega h-t); Mido. Substitutes not used: Pollitt (gk), Edman, Cywka, Kapo, Camara.

Referee: R Styles (Hants).

Booked: Aston Villa Davies; Wigan Athletic Brown.

Man of the match: Figueroa.

Attendance: 41,766.

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